The Book Reader: ‘The Mad Feast’

Bari Weiss of the Wall Street Journal checks out Matthew Gavin Frank’s “The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food” in NY1’s The Book Reader.

We’re living in a golden age of food. But food writing? Not so much.

Yes, there’s a lot of it - but most of it is breathless and ecstatic, and packed with adjectives like “succulent” and “mouth-watering” that don’t actually tell you much about the goods.

But then comes a book like “The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food,” which puts those scribbling about artisanal water and small-batch dumplings to shame.

I can tell you that the book consists of 50 essays, one for each state, and that a local recipe grounds each chapter. In New York, it’s the bagel, in Virginia it’s peanut soup. But that doesn’t convey a sense of how witty, whimsical and, oftentimes just weird “The Mad Feast” is.

Matthew Gavin Frank describes his book as “a spastic, lyrical anti-cookbook cookbook that also may be a fun and digressive revisionist take on U.S. history.”

Take his chapter on Maine and Whoopie Pie:

“In many Maine hospitals," he writes, "Whoopie Pie, the official state treat, is “liquefied” and chilled, and given to patients who’ve just had their tonsils removed. It is coagulant, sealant, replacement for both the standard ice cream and the cut-away parts of us. In the Whoopie Pie is every Amish woman’s broken leg, tendinitis, farmhouse mastectomy, the slowness of the horses… It’s the cool of the cream in the middle that holds our parts together, keeps our insides inside.”

Of Hawaiian shave ice he writes, “As opposed to the pellets of snow cone, shave ice demands a finer, thinner grain, aims more to mimic the texture of actual snow. That our islands have never seen snow does nothing to deter the shaving. In this act is wish fulfillment, some silly stab at empathizing with the weather systems of the mainland, or, a retroactive reclaiming of weather that was never ours.”

Throughout the book, Frank seamlessly weaves in regional history, deeply specific local characters, and personal revelations and tragedy. This author hears America chewing, and it sounds very strange and very beautiful.

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